Guidelines at two top U.S. divinity schools have recommended professors use “inclusive” gender-neutral language—including for God, according to documents from both Duke and Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt’s 2016-2017 catalog says the divinity school “commits continuously and explicitly to include gender as an analyzed category and to mitigate sexism” in its teachings. “This includes consistent attention to the use of inclusive language, especially in relation to the Divine,” the divinity school catalog says.
Melissa Snarr, the associate dean for academic affairs at Vanderbilt’s divinity school, said in an emailed statement that the 2016-2017 guidelines actually stem from a policy that dates back to 1999.
That document states that “masculine titles, pronouns, and imagery for God have served as a cornerstone for the patriarchy,” while also noting that not all of God’s names are gendered. It recommended “exploration of fresh language for God.”
Vanderbilt faculty vary in their views about how to express the divine, Snarr said. “It is up to the individual professor’s interpretation for their classes and is suggestive rather than mandatory,” she said of the 2016-2017 guidelines.
Duke’s divinity school has a more detailed set of guidelines—but also one that applies to fewer of its students.
The “inclusive language” guidelines were created for a divinity school program geared toward people already working in the Methodist church, taking supplemental weekend or summer classes. That’s “a totally different path than matriculated students,” said a Duke spokeswoman.
Duke’s guidelines offers suggestions “as a beginning point for developing a more inclusive language about God.”
Those suggestions include avoiding gender-specific pronouns, instead using “God” and “Godself.”
The Duke guidelines also suggest professors forgo gendered metaphors for God. For instance, a professor might say “God is a parent to us all” instead of “a father.” Another option: Mixing gender in metaphors. A professor could say, for example, “God is the father who welcomes his son, but she is also the woman searching for the lost coin.”
“Referring to God in gender-neutral language can sound clumsy,” the Duke guidelines say, “but this is largely due to the fact that we are in a transitional period with our use of language. Imagination, patience, and diligence are required in order to use language that expands and enriches our understanding of God.”
Other prominent universities have also wrestled with how inclusive language policies relate to their divinity programs.
Notre Dame’s Theology Department issued a statement recognizing “the ongoing debate and conflicting views about gender-sensitive language for God.” In the end, it opted to issue no formal policy, leaving the decision to professors.
And the editors of the Harvard Theological Review took a more hardline approach, writing that “it is not always appropriate to employ inclusive language when referring to God or divine beings.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.